Saturday, December 18, 2010

The incredible cinnamon buns of Frank the cowboy

(Frank Anderson, my favorite cowboy and pastry chef, on his favorite quarter horse, Magic.)

Frank Anderson is a cowboy.  I mean, he is a real cowboy.  Frank and his family used to run cattle in the wide open landscape of eastern Oregon.  They were out on the range for weeks at a time, ate from a chuck wagon, punched cattle from horseback---the whole nine yards.  Years later, when his kids attended a proper school for the first time in their lives in Eugene, the teacher called Frank and his wife in for a conference.  She told them that their kids were great.  So what's the problem?  Well, they tell these unbelievable stories about living on the range like the cowboys of old.  The teacher quipped: "No one has lived like that for 100 years."  But Frank snapped back: "Mam.  That is exactly how we lived."

I got to know Frank while he was working for the OX Ranch near Council, Idaho.  For many years during the 1990s, Paul Sherman and I drove from Cornell to the OX where we conducted research on Idaho ground squirrels for two months every spring.  The OX was an operating cattle ranch with only a couple of full-time cowboys; with the well-trained cattle dogs they used, you just didn't need many men to keep those cattle from misbehaving.  Frank was in his 60s then, but he still mounted a horse early in the morning and didn't get off until evening.  Sometimes he had to sleep on the ground in the early spring cold, rather than take the time to come back to the house, if the herd was far away.  In the morning after those nights, he didn't walk completely upright.

Frank is built like most men would like to be built who were 40 years his junior.  Probably about 5'10" tall, 200 pounds, not an ounce of fat.  He sports a huge handlebar moustache, bushy eyebrows that he can raise so high they knock off his cowboy hat, and a flattop haircut.  He could easily pass for a Marine Corps drill instructor at Parris Island.  He is a horse whisperer and a dog whisperer.  He owns a team of four Belgians that he used to pull a wagon.  It is no small feat to control 8,000 pounds of horse with four independent brains, but Frank used to enter competitions with his "boys" where you did just that.  His son actually "breaks" horses for a living.  Once when Frank was driving fence posts into the ground he lost the tip of his index finger to the first joint.  He politely produced the severed finger from his pocket to the doctor when he finally got to the medical office.

But on Sundays, Frank transforms into something else.  He is usually home that day, and he bakes.  He made fantastic pies when we worked on the ranch.  One Sunday, I entered Frank's kitchen to find a plate of the most delicious-looking cinnamon buns you ever saw.  They were huge, tipping the scales at about half a pound each, oozing with cinnamon-flavored gooeyness, and warm.  In my entire pastry-consuming life, I never tasted a cinnamon bun that was that good, and I consider myself a cinnamon bun aficionado.  I was astonished at Frank's accomplishment, I ranted and raved about the creation, and I praised the cowboy profusely.  He nodded with pride and modest self-satisfaction.

My son Matt, who was working with me at the time, whispered to me that we need to trap squirrels in the location of Frank's house every Sunday, especially on the side of the house where Frank can see us through a large picture window, and that we should look hungry and in need of hot coffee.  We agreed that we would rehearse the forlorn look of a hungry squirrel biologist that very night back at our bunkhouse.  After a few Sundays, Sherman began to see the pattern, and accused us of planning our research schedule around the activities of the cowboy's kitchen.

When we returned to Ithaca, I told everyone about the cowboy's buns.  I bragged to my wife, I exclaimed to my department chairman, and I repeated the story of the Most Excellent Cinnamon Buns to my students and to anyone who would listen.  The following year we went back to the OX to study the wily ground squirrel.  On Sundays, I trapped near Frank's house.  I was hoping to score again.  Apple pie was good, but those buns.................  Had it all been just a wonderful dream?

And then one Sunday it happened.  Frank had cinnamon buns!  But wait.  They were good, but not great.  Was Frank slipping?  Had he lost the original recipe?  Had he changed ovens or mixers?  Was he using a metal spoon now instead of a wooden one?  And the following year, it was the same.  Good buns, but not great buns.

A few years after this, when our squirrel project was over, Frank visited my wife and I in Ithaca.  And then the truth came out.  The old cowboy confessed.  The wonderful cinnamon buns that I remembered were not Frank's.  He had purchased them at a local church bake sale a few days before.  When Matt and I went bonkers over how good they were, and how amazed we were that the cattle-puncher could produce such a thing, Frank took the credit.  The whole story took on a life of its own.  Frank heard us tell his foreman what great buns his employee made.  His culinary reputation throughout western Idaho was growing far and wide, as well as through the halls of the Ivy League back East.  Frank let the acclaim get the better of him, his head swelled to the size of a 10-gallon hat.  After that inaugural bun year, Frank knew that we would be expecting those pastries, so he learned how to make cinnamon buns in an attempt to create a seamless bun history.  The "good" buns were his.  The "great" buns came from the bake sale.  And he hoped we would not know the difference.  OMG!

After his confession, I thought I would never trust any cowboy I met again.  To be honest, I have not met another cowboy in the 15 years since this incident, but if I ever meet one, he will have to prove himself to me.  But then, I cogitated the facts of this case a bit longer and I realized something.  Frank knew we were counting on having cinnamon buns at his house on Sunday.  So he took the time to learn how to make them.  He realized he now had a bun reputation to uphold, and a man's reputation was worth fighting over.  In fact, where Frank comes from, men used to shoot each other over such things not so long ago.  So in the end, I thought--bravo Frank.  Well done.  May the memory of your buns live forever.

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